Star Frontiers: Where No Dwarf Has Gone Before

As part of the latest GROGPOD, Daily Dwarf turns his attention to Imagine Magazine and how it covered Star Frontiers

“Oi DD, we’re doing Star Frontiers on the next pod, I need 1500 words from you, stat!”

Dirk the Dice, host of The GROGNARD files RPG Podcast

Hmm, the latest assignment from his messianic megalomaniac-ness was going to be a bit of a problem. You see, Star Frontiers hardly featured in White Dwarf magazine. It was reviewed in Open Box, issue #37, where Andy Slack commented that the combat system was “in the heroic style with people missing each other like crack Imperial Stormtroopers”, but also noted that space travel was “virtually ignored”, before giving it a respectable 7 out of 10. Apart from that though, the only time Star Frontiers appeared was in those back-page adverts where TSR cheekily referred to their science fiction RPG as “the ‘playable’ one”. Naughty.

But anyway, what’s a Daily Dwarf to do? Well, it turns out there were other RPG magazines back in the day, and the dangerous combination of lockdown, red wine and ebay has meant I’ve acquired a fair few of them recently.

So, tonight Matthew, I’m going to be… *emerges from swirling dry ice* … Intermittent Imagine!

Imagine, TSR UK’s RPG magazine from the mid-80s, (unsurprisingly) had a decent amount of coverage of Star Frontiers – plenty for us to dig into. I should note at the outset though that I’ve never played Star Frontiers, and don’t really know that much about it apart from its reputation for having an interesting mix of alien races. So, the following comments are made in something of a state of ignorance. But when have I ever let that stop me before?

The game itself was reviewed in the very first issue, where Jim Bambra was broadly positive about the game, noting its emphasis on pulp adventure, while acknowledging the soon-to-be infamous lack of starship rules in the initial boxed set. There were a smattering of module reviews in subsequent issues, and Star Frontiers also put in an occasional appearance in the Dispel Confusion Q&A column, Imagine’s feature for rules lawyers everywhere. Apart from that though, all the Star Frontiers content in the magazine consisted of adventures – this struck me at first glance as a notable contrast with the coverage of Traveller in White Dwarf; there were no articles on hard SF minutiae, or discussions on different cosmological models here.

But how did the adventures stack up?


First out of the gate was Aramax One by John Tantoblin in issue #4, which opened with a classic SF RPG set-up: a mysterious patron pays the player characters to indulge in a little light industrial sabotage. This gave the PCs the opportunity for some ‘Metal Gear Solid’-style infiltration of a technical facility, having to do the job against the clock. The Tim e constraint injected a nice sense of urgency, enabling the GM to keep the pace of the adventure ticking along, with events likely to end in a good old firefight.

Reading it now, it amused me to notice this was science fiction as seen through the lens of the 1980s – the state-of-the-art computer installation consisting of a number of large beige cabinets being one more obvious example. A solid start for Star Frontiers in the magazine, then; some “traditional” SF tropes, with one or two dashes of humour. This scenario was also picked by Dave Paterson on the Frankenstein’s RPG podcast as an ideal introductory SF adventure – check out series 2 episode 9 to hear his thoughts.

Wonderful work by Bryan Talbot

Next up, a bit of a cheat? The Fire Opal of Set in issue #14 was mainly written as a Traveller scenario, but was listed on the contents page as being for Star Frontiers too, even if that just amounted to a small box on the final page, explaining how to convert the stats with this solid advice: “don’t worry too much about the numbers”. Ah, but how could I not include an adventure from the mind of Bryan Talbot, set in the multi-dimensional worlds of Luther Arkwright, that started with a player introduction in the form of a comic illustrated by Talbot himself?

This scenario was most definitely a cut above the norm. Taking Bryan Talbot’s initial ideas, a team from Imagine – Mike Brunton, Jim Bambra and Paul Cockburn – fashioned an epic dimension-hopping adventure, tasking the PCs to retrieve information on a potent doomsday device, while evading the dark influence across the parallels of the sinister Disruptors. There was a very open structure to the main body of the adventure, with plenty of scope for player ingenuity, although care was required as it struck me the scenario also featured a high level of lethality. With plenty of cool, flavourful tech, and characters and locations drawn from Bryan Talbot’s fertile imagination, this really looked to conjure the authentic feeling of adventuring in the worlds of Luther Arkwright, in an exciting race against time for the PCs. The only problem for me? I wanted more – I couldn’t help feeling there’s a follow-up adventure still waiting to be written. (Bryan listens to the pod, right?)

Maybe Star Frontiers isn’t the obvious choice of system for this scenario, but I could imagine a GM already familiar with the system would be tempted to tackle it – with pre-gen characters supplied, it’s perfect for a one-shot. Dirk of course did just this (albeit with Mythras); check out episode 9 of the pod, and the Grognard Files website, for Dirk and Blythy’s discussion.


In issue #18, Mike Brunton gave us the adventure On the Rocks for Star Frontiers – now with added spaceships! Yes, addressing that egregious deficiency, the scenario was built around the East Indiaman, a new spaceship class for the game. Hired as salvage crew, the PCs had to check out a spaceship that had crashed on an asteroid, while dealing with rival concerns trying their best to stop them. The set-up for the adventure was quite straightforward, almost spare, and I think would require additional work from the GM to add embellishments to bring it “alive”. For me, there wasn’t much, apart from one or two alien NPCs, to mark this out as a distinctively Star Frontiers scenario; the situation – with the PCs caught up in the machinations of commercial rivals – felt much more like a typical Traveller scenario. The emphasis on the tech reinforced this impression; half of the page count was given over to detailed specs and deck plans for the East Indiaman Class Freighter, for those that like that sort of thing. Sadly though, there was no mention of any pot plants in the state rooms.

Finally, just prior to the demise of the magazine itself, we had The Sarafand File in issue #29. This was another ‘Team Imagine’ production, with an original design by Paul Vernon and Sean Masterson then further developed by Mike Brunton and Jim Bambra, taking as their inspiration the works of British science fiction author Bob Shaw. Rather than presenting a single adventure, this feature consisted of a number of scenario outlines – in the style of Traveller’s 76 Patrons – centred around The Cartographical Service, a planetary survey organisation from Shaw’s Ship of Strangers stories, and the Sarafand class explorer spaceship. I have to say, the authors didn’t exactly sell this as a compelling opportunity for gaming when they wrote: “a final problem with the missions undertaken by a Sarafand class explorer is that many of them are boringly routine, which does not aid in making the game exciting.” Hmm.

What of the scenario outlines? What missions were available for our budding PC space cartographers? Did they provide an exciting escape from the tedium of surveying planets? Well, there was an interesting mix:

  • Investigating a lifeless world that may not be all it seems.
  • What happens when an away team lose contact with the mothership.
  • Identifying an unknown saboteur on board the survey ship.

A couple had more than a faint air of familiarity about them:

  • Investigating a wrecked ship, potentially carrying “something” deadly back on board.
  • Dealing with a malfunctioning ship’s computer with megalomaniacal tendencies.

These last two didn’t so much wear their influences on their sleeves, as announce them with a blaring neon-lit klaxon. But hey, if you’re going to steal ideas, steal from the best.


All the adventure seeds, plus the details of the survey ship itself, were dual-statted for Traveller as well as Star Frontiers, but done properly this time, with some thought given as to how The Cartographical Service could be integrated into the Star Frontiers setting. I couldn’t help but feel though that this article was primarily developed with Traveller in mind; it had that blue-collar science fiction aesthetic I always associate with classic Traveller.

In fact, this struck me about all the Star Frontiers adventures in Imagine – saving The Fire Opal of Set, which was very much its own thing – they all felt like Traveller scenarios, the “dirty” science fiction of cynical corporations, of individuals trying to get by in an uncaring environment, and maybe make a few bucks along the way. They didn’t strike me as pulp adventures with noble heroes, strange worlds and bizarre aliens, the shiny, day-glo space opera of Flash Gordon or Star Wars. As I said at the start, these are just my impressions, not having played the game – maybe these scenarios do have more of a pulp feel in play?

I wonder whether, by the mid 1980s, Traveller already had its hooks deeply embedded into the minds of UK gamers, so that when they thought of science fiction, they immediately thought of Traveller? White Dwarf had already helped to sell Traveller to the British gaming masses; Imagine itself, despite being TSR’s house magazine, also featured Traveller-only articles from the likes of Marcus L Rowland and Paul Vernon. Maybe it was already too late for Star Frontiers?

I guess I need to roll some dice and find out.

This essay originally appeared as a segment in The GROGNARD files Episode 61 (Part 1) and was written by @dailydwarf

Episode 49 – Marcus L. Rowland (with Thunder Phase!)

This is the 80th GROGPOD and there is a sense of celebration in the air. We are delighted to have Marcus L Rowland as our guest. He was a stalwart of Whit Dwarf during its hey day. Cthulhu Now! Green Horizon, To Live and Die in Mega City One and the Fear of Flying, his contribution to our gaming imagination back in the day is inestimable.

@DailyDwarf provides a retrospective of his work in White Dwarf.

The first ever Patreon of The GROGNARD Files was Sam Vail and he reveals the first game he played, the last game he played and the game that means everything to him in a lifetime of gaming.

Blythy joins me in the Room of Role Playing Rambling to answer listener questions in the Thunder Phase!

Check out Bud’s RPG Review.

You can support the GROGNARD files on Patreon.

White Dwarf Book Club issue 90

This is the last White Dwarf Book Club for 2020, it will go into hibernation until next Summer.

The selection of issue 90 was made by Daily Dwarf (by rolling at random on a d100), it’s got a striking portrait of the character himself. This was another one of those issues that was an ‘on-boarding’ relaunch as the printing method changed. It had a perfect spine, more pages and even more adverts, to mark the 10th Anniversary of the magazines.

The Games Workshop publishing studio was working at full pelt at this point following the management takeover by Citadel. As well as UK prints of US Roleplaying classics such as Stormbringer, Call of Cthulhu, and Paranoia, they were extending the range of board games. In this issue they are promoting the Rogue Trooper game, based on the 2000ad strip.

It’s a perfect end to the second season of the Book Club.

White Dwarf Book Club Issue 14

Another low roller, this time the d100 was rattled by Bud from Bud’s RPG Review, the ‘First, Last and Everything’ contributor for the latest episode of the GROGPOD. In the episode we celebrate 5 years of producing the pod which all began with Runequest. In the first episode, @dailydwarf declares Lair of the White Wyrm to be the best Runequest scenario: it’s a classic zoo-dungeon showing off the Gloranthean bestiary to the full.

It may feel a bit slight compare to some of the other issues we have looked at, but it’s a significant issue not least because Ian Livingstone, fresh from a trip to Origins, includes an interview with Gary Gygax. In the editorial, Livingstone wonders if Brits will ever have the stomach for a three day convention.

Last weekend, it was the virtual version of UK Games Expo, which included streamed-seminars where former member of the editorial team of White Dwarf Marc Gascoigne gave a shout out to The GROGNARD files. Much has changed over the past 40 years, not only can the Brits stomach three day cons, we can enjoy them from the comfort of our own homes.

If you’d like to play Lair of the White Worm, then come and join me and others at Glorantha Games where I will be running it using 13th Age Glorantha.

Let us know what you think of this issue by responding in the comments below.

P.S. You can find links to the issues in the comments of the first Book Club.

White Dwarf Book Club Issue 19

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Apparently at random, Pookie has rolled a 19 and conjured up this issue from 1980. I say ‘apparently’ at random as it is a remarkable coincidence that he as rolled an issue featuring a RuneQuest scenario that he has revived for the Jonstown Compendium. Mmmm. Let me see those rolls.

This is from the early period when the magazine was produced every two months, available on subscription or for specialist game shops.

I always find the adverts in each issue striking. Due to the lack of colour, the advertisers relied on words to make their pitch. Look at full page ad for Foes; the words create fabulous characterful imagery for a book with computer stat-blocks for NPCs. Don Turnbull writes a letter setting out the mission for TSR UK. He writes … a letter!

The Les Edwards’ cover would reappear later as a colour plate within Call of Cthulhu Third edition by Games Workshop. It’s an image of great intensity and a nostalgic resonance.

Look forward to your views.

P.S. If you look at the comments under the link to Issue 33 you’ll find a link to a copy – shhhh!

White Dwarf Book Club Issue 52

Apologies for the gratuitous bum-cheek; don’t blame me, blame the d100 rolled by GROGSQUADer Dave Paterson to pick a random issue.

Interesting one this issue as it appears to be another one of those ‘on-boarding’ issues that seems to be reaching out to new readers who are new to the hobby. Was it a new distribution deal with newsagents? Was it at a point where there was a marketing campaign reaching out to new players?

The content is pitched at new readers too with an introduction to the hobby from Marcus L Rowland, with a great colour illustration from Iain McCaig (I tried copying it with my coloured pencils, but reader, it was rubbish).

There’s also a solo adventure from David Morris, a beginning adventure for ‘the Big One’ Dungeons and Dragons, and a new column about miniatures (I can’t see that catching on).

Do you remember this one? Did you use any of the material? Share your memories and thoughts with the Book Club.

P.S. If you look at the comments under the link to Issue 33 you’ll find a link to a copy – shhhh!

White Dwarf Book Club Issue 42

By some strange quirk of fate, this issue precedes the issue that was selected last week! Don’t blame me, blame the cursed dice of Hattifattener who rolled it on their d100 over on our Discord channel (if you’d like to join, then please let me know).

In this month a toilet caught fire on Air Canada’s DC-9 killing 23 people, Mrs Thatch was elected with a landslide and Octopussy was released. We needed something to cheer us up.

Fortunately this was the hey day of the hey day of White Dwarf and the covers don’t get much better than this John Blanche classic. As Daily Dwarf once pointed out, there’s about three scenarios at once playing out in that city. Inspirational stuff.

The internal content is just as classic. Part 1 of Irillian, ‘To catch a Thief’ one of the best ever Traveller articles (to my mind), Cthulhu Now! and a great Griselda story to boot.

I’d be really interested in how many of products and services that you used from the ads in this issue too.

P.S. If you look at the comments under the link to Issue 33 you’ll find a link to a copy – shhhh!

White Dwarf Book Club Issue 78

GROGSQUAD, pay attention, the next issue to study is this one from June 1986.

I’m not sure what you were doing in that month, but I was at the Milton Keynes Bowl watching Marillion at The Garden Party. It wasn’t a concert, it was an event. Jethro Tull, Gary Moore, Magnum and Mama’s Boys performed too in a brilliant day.

It was held on the same day as the Wham! farewell concert and our coaches met at Watford Gap. Two tribes. Us in our black Assassing! tees with long-hair and the Wham! lads in dressed in white wearing straw hats.

Nazis in Bolivia, boeing (R) in The Meg, life after death and Cosmic Encounter cards … what did you make of it?

White Dwarf Book Club – Issue 37

A random roll on the d100 as thrown up 37 (4 issues later than the first one) which was dated January 1983. The magazine had started to get into the stride as a monthly publication after years of coming out every two months.

This was the month that wearing a seat belt became compulsory in the UK, despite protests from people bemoaning their loss of the civil right of being thrown through a windscreen. BBC launched its Breakfast Time programme with Frank Bough jazzed out in his jazzy jumpers and the Green Goddess preened in green.

ET won the Golden Globes for film drama (with Tootsie winning the comedy) and Hill Street Blues won the TV awards. Steve ‘interesting’ Davies won the Snooker Classic in St Helens. Superman: The Movie is shown on TV for the first time.

Let’s look at this together: What did you make of the cover? Did Alan E Paul’s FAERIES appear in your games? Did you learn your Traveller referring ropes from Andy Slack? Some classics appear in Open Box … did you play Crasimoff’s World? Vampire tables! Don Turnbull is getting cross on the letters page… How did you make use of issue 37?